For my weekly post, I planned a substantial essay connecting the last three books I read–Daniel Rodgers, Age of Fracture, David Hollinger, Cosmopolitanism and Solidarity, and David Sehat, The Myth of American Religious Freedom–but I didn’t have enough hours in my week to do it justice. So stay tuned for that next week. In the meantime, I offer a short post on a topic that is also substantial. Do intellectual historians still read George Nash, author of the classic The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America (1976)?
This topic is my way of sending regrets to the ongoing OAH, which I am unfortunately missing this year. Next year, I hope to be a participant when the OAH makes it way to Milwaukee (next year is the year of the Midwest history conference–in addition to the OAH hitting Wisconsin, both the AHA and the History of Education Society annual meetings will be in Chicago). You see, Lisa Szefel and I organized a panel proposal for next year’s OAH on conservative intellectuals, and George Nash agreed to serve as our commentator should we be accepted to the program. We styled the panel as a chance to review conservative intellectual historiography in the wake of Nash’s monumental work, which has been described as the Bible of Conservative Intellectual History. (Jennifer Burns reviewed the Nash book’s legacy in a 2004 Reviews in American History essay here.)
Here’s a small sample of the panel proposal that Lisa and I wrote:
George H. Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, first published in 1976, stands as the most influential book in the historiography of conservative intellectuals. To this day, it is rare for historians to challenge Nash’s thesis that the conservative intellectual movement was a big tent, under which traditionalists, libertarians, and anticommunists all gathered amicably. Nash, in other words, added historical description to the fusionist prescriptions of Frank Meyer and William F. Buckley, Jr. at the National Review, which probably explains why that famous little magazine pre-published The Conservative Intellectual Movement as a 47-page inset.
Although Nash’s big tent argument seems like conventional wisdom in retrospect, at the time it was an important revision in at least two ways. First, Nash helped explode pluralist notions of conservatism, laid out in that notorious 1962 collection of essays, The Radical Right, that psychoanalyzed conservatism as a symptom of status anxiety. For pluralists like Richard Hofstadter, conservatism was an irrational, borderline pathological response to the swirls of modernity. Nash’s conservatives, on the other hand, hardly evinced Hofstadter’s infamous “paranoid style.” They were serious intellectuals who thought deeply about and responded creatively to the challenges of modernity. Second, Nash’s emphasis on the autonomy of ideas, especially those regarding history and tradition that conservative intellectuals imported from Europe, challenged materialist assumptions about conservative thought as a mere mask for the business class.
So my question to readers: Do you still read George Nash? I still use his 1976 classic work as a sort of encyclopedia that sits on my desk whenever I’m writing about conservative intellectuals. But a review of a recent collection of his writings made me think I need to get caught up with some of his more recent work.